Cause to Celebrate
Exploring the Louisiana State Museum
Rising almost temple-like in juxtaposition to the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Shreveport, the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, or LSEM, has been a jewel treasured by denizens of the Ark-La-Tex region ever since it made its premiere the same year as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. In 1939, construction as a Public Works Administration project under President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was completed; today it occupies a space on the National Historic Register and is the only public museum in Louisiana to be named a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate, two pretty impressive – and unsurprising – credentials.
The main entrance is ablaze with a massive mural by Louisiana’s version of Michelangelo, Conrad Albrizio, that takes up 700 feet of wall space; vibrantly colored, the scenes of Louisiana’s agrarian culture, St. Louis Cathedral, North Louisiana’s timber industry and other images shout like a hallelujah chorus telling our history. The murals are also considered to be among the most important artwork in the South. It’s a breathtaking prelude to what lies within the LSEM.
The circular layout of the museum is a kind of around-the-world approach to Louisiana culture.
The LSEM is also highly acclaimed for its large collection of American Indian artifacts. Due to its connection to the esteemed Smithsonian, many of the traveling exhibits and educational resources sponsored by the Washington enclave make their way to the Bayou State. One of the treasures permanently entrenched there is another creation funded by the New Deal: the magnificent, sunken and largest topographical map of Louisiana, a bit of 3-D without the glasses.
The museum also houses 22 dioramas, Louisiana in Miniature, filled with details, details, details that delight, fascinate and educate; human figures, animals, crops and machinery rise against exquisite backdrops painted by Louisiana artists.
You’ll also find another treasure trove of American Indian artifacts such as a 31-foot Caddo dugout canoe (American Indian dugouts were hardy enough for the Gulf of Mexico), pottery, baskets and lithic artifacts. Natural history gets fine exposure of wildlife, seashells and fossils.
Then there are the five gardens located on the ground, geared for both education and enjoyment: the Native American Garden, the Medicinal Garden, the Rotary Garden, the Courtyard Garden and the climbing rose wonder that is the Dunn Garden.
More than 42,000 schoolchildren visit this cultural wonderland every year to partake of either guided or self-guided tours and enjoy the available educational programs.
Thirty years ago, the lovers of the museum banded together to form the Friends of the LSEM, offering their time and money to foster the exhibits, gardens and ongoing education. With infinite creativity and imagination, they provided all the funding for nationally acclaimed exhibits such as King Tut, The Louisiana Purchase and The Pulitzer Prize Photographs, among others.
One beloved fixture of the LSEM is now missing: There once dwelled in the center courtyard in the museum pool one Charlie Bob, alligator-in-residence. For a time, he co-alligatored with one lady named Samantha, who sadly passed away. Charlie Bob was relocated to the State Fair next door, where he can be seen annually. Of all the treasures located within the walls of the LSEM, Charlie Bob remains the most-asked-about feature by return visitors, something that befits a museum dedicated to Louisiana.
Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, 3015 Greenwood Road, Shreveport, (318) 632-2020.